Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.
However, government apparently can decide for itself who comprises said press.
At least that is the unsettling signal that has been sent from just across Iowa’s eastern and western borders.
In Nebraska, reporters who want to cover Gov. Pete Ricketts’ press conferences will have to answer detailed questions about their business model and submit a notarized letter from a manager, The Associated Press reported this week. Reporters must complete an application, which the governor’s office will review to determine whether applicants maintain "journalistic integrity" by confirming whether they’re a "bone fide journalist" and have no "real or perceived" conflicts of interest.
Elected officials determining who is a "bone fide journalist" and who is not: that’s not at all terrifying.
Before you laugh off such a rule and declare, "How silly; that will never survive a legal challenge because of the First Amendment," let me draw your attention to Iowa’s other river boundary.
A federal appeals court recently ruled Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers can exclude some media members from press briefings and keep them off his administration’s media list for distribution of press releases and other announcements.
The court determined the Evers administration’s exclusion of some media outlets did not violate the outlet’s constitutional rights to free speech, freedom of the press and equal access, The AP reported.
Ricketts is a Republican and Evers a Democrat. Ricketts’ new policy was announced after an Omaha-based online news outlet, which is funded in part by a large donor that has funded left-of-center advocacy groups, said Ricketts’ administration has ignored its questions and recently denied it access to a press conference, The AP reported. The Wisconsin case was brought by a conservative think tank that has been denied access to Evers’ press conferences and media distribution lists, The AP reported.
The idea that government officials can pick and choose which media outlets cover them should send a chill down the spine of anyone who desires a properly functioning government.
Unfortunately, this is already happening in Iowa as well. Laura Belin, who publishes the Bleeding Heartland political website, has not been permitted to cover Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ press conferences and denied credentials to cover the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature.
It is true that the journalism landscape has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades. The internet has given rise to non-traditional media outlets, and media outlets whose coverage is clearly partisan have exploded. The question of who is and is not a legitimate reporter or journalist is, admittedly, murkier than it once was.
But that question should not be answered solely by the government officials who are being covered by those journalists. That sets a dangerous precedent.
A Democratic governor may not love the idea of taking questions in a press conference from a conservative media outlet, just as a Republican governor may not be eager to field questions from a liberal outlet’s reporter.
But that’s governance. Elected officials serve all of their constituents, not just the one whose political ideology match. And a free press is a free press. The government should not be allowed to decide who to cross off the media list.
Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.